Guest post by Ronda L. Sewald.
As part of its 2020 film series, Love! I’m in Love! Classic Black Cinema of the 1970s, the IU Cinema will be screening John Berry’s romantic comedy Claudine (1974), at 7 pm on Thursday, February 6th.
Claudine stars James Earl Jones in the role of Roop, a charming garbageman, and the dynamic Diahann Carroll as the titular character and a single working mother to six children. The film is unique in its examination of the complicated interactions between their developing romance and the oversight of the welfare office as they try to build their relationship without putting their financial survival at risk.
Diahann Carroll’s early career leading up to her starring role in Claudine also proved complicated as she battled against discrimination in the film, television, and music industries from the mid-1950s to the 1970s and attempted to land dramatic roles. Many black musical stars shared her frustrations at the time, including Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge. In 1962, Carroll readily informed reporters that the lack of non-stereotyped roles for black actors was due to Hollywood’s fears that it would prevent the distribution of films, particularly in the South. She also testified at a Congressional Hearing that:
“I am living proof of the horror of discrimination. In eight years, I’ve had just two Broadway shows and two dramatic TV shows. I’ve asked repeatedly why. Surely I’m not so difficult to include. It’s enough to drive you up the wall.”
Newspaper accounts and recordings of Carroll’s nightclub and other musical performances from this period leave little doubt as to her obvious musical and acting abilities. By the age of 24, Diahann Carroll had established a budding musical career. At the age of 10, she received a Metropolitan Opera scholarship to attend New York’s High School of Music and Art. By 19, she had made her television debut on Chance of a Lifetime (1954) and won the competition for three consecutive weeks in a row. In the five years that followed, she played supporting roles in the musical films Carmen Jones (1954) and Porgy and Bess (1959) and made (often multiple) musical appearances on at least twelve different variety television programs. She also appeared in Harold Arlen and Truman Capote’s Broadway musical House of Flowers (1954), and released three albums: Diahann Carroll Sings Harold Arlen (RCA-Victor 1957), Best Beat Forward (Vik 1958), and Porgy and Bess with the André Previn Trio (1959).
On the verge of musical stardom, Carroll enlisted Phil Moore as her talent coach in the late 1950s. A former composer, arranger, and talent coach for MGM, Moore had established a strong reputation as a “Groomer of the Stars.” Moore’s work with his clients was all-encompassing. In addition to vocal training, he shaped his clients’ stage presence and firmly guided their selection of repertoire, venues, outfits, and monologues so that every element of their act would bring out and showcase their innate talents. By the mid-1950s, he had proven instrumental in shaping the on-stage personas of musical actresses such as Lena Horne, Marilyn Monroe, and Dorothy Dandridge. Contemporaries and scholars alike often credit him as the force behind Dandridge’s transformation into a cinematic superstar.
Signs of Moore’s impact on Carroll’s performances were noted by critics almost immediately. One of the first descriptions of the results of their collaboration appeared in a review by Robert W. Dana in the 24 November 1959 issue of the New York World-Telegram and Sun. Dana highlights Carroll’s stage presence while describing her performance at the Plaza Hotel’s Persian Room on the previous night:
“In an act produced and staged by Phil Moore, with orchestrations and arrangements by her piano accompanist, Peter Metz, she was gay, pensive and sentimental, flirtatious, vengeful, sadly reminiscent and lustily exuberant. Like a play in three acts, the young singer’s program is accented by personality touches inherent in the music and lyrics, which Miss Carroll interprets with the skill of an accomplished actress.”
Soon after, Carroll began landing parts in dramatic television series and films including the role of Connie Lampson in Martin Ritt’s Paris Blues (1961) and that of Ruby Jay in an episode of Naked City (1962). The latter role earned her a nomination for a 1963 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Single Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role.
As Moore and Carroll continued to work on nightclub acts together throughout the 1960s, more and more reviewers hailed not only her musical artistry and beauty, but also her dramatic talent. Following a return performance at the Persian Room in February 1965, The New York World Telegram and Sun described the show as establishing Carroll’s reputation not just as a “No. 1 song stylist,” but also as “a No. 1 dramatic actress.” Critic Gregg Hunter exclaimed, “When Diahann interprets a tune she doesn’t merely sing it—she lives it!”
In his “Nite Club Review,” critic E. Loebl noted that “Coach Phil Moore has been very good for Diahann Carroll and added, “This very talented arranger, accompanist, and conductor has taken her plentiful talents and woven them into a beautifully balanced act for her current Persian Room stint.”
The foreign press noted Carroll’s acting talent as well. A review in the Puerto Rican paper Viva! declared her an “accomplished actress.” The reviewer was also one of several to note that Carroll had worked a monologue into her act boasting that “she had finally made it in the big-time, and how a producer had paid her the ultimate compliment of asking her to name her role.” Carroll’s reported response was that she wanted to play Lil’ Liza Doolittle in My Fair Lady with Cab Calloway in the leading role of ‘enry ‘iggins.
It’s unclear whether Carroll’s claim was legitimate or just a segue into her Harlem-styled rendition of “My Fair Lady,” but by March 1966 it was public knowledge that she would be playing the role of Vivian Thurlow in Otto Preminger’s Hurry Sundown (1967). Reporter Carol Taylor commented, “It’s hard to relate this confident young star to the troubled girl who, only four years ago, bitterly told a Congressional hearing here: ‘I am living proof of the horror of discrimination.’”
Carroll proved to be an unstoppable force as she smashed through well-established color barriers in the moving image industries. Even representatives with the NBC Network were rather candid about the network’s discriminatory practices, albeit in a way that rhetorically shifted the blame away from television audiences and executives to television as a medium. Referring to television as a “gambling business,” Ross Donaldson from NBC—Burbank described the development process for Julia:
“18 months ago Hal Kanter brought the idea to Mort Werner, NBC program veepee, and Donaldson. It was a verbal presentation and no one had been cast. Kanter incidentally mentioned that the star he had in mind ‘happens to be a Negro.’ Both Werner and Donaldson nodded their approval of the idea and remarked that they always wanted Diahann Carroll on the network. Management agreed it was a good idea and that television was ready for it. The script began to develop and the casting was completed. The pilot was ordered and Julia became an instant hit.”
Carroll’s groundbreaking role on Julia as the first African American actress to star in a TV series in a role other than as a domestic servant received several awards and nominations. She would still need to wait two years after the end of the series in 1971 until receiving her first starring dramatic role in Claudine (1974).
Although Carroll’s success is undeniable and she made regular television and musical appearances from 1954 until her passing on 4 October 2019, it is difficult not to wonder what trajectory her film career might have taken if she could have focused her dynamic artistic talent and energy on crafting new roles as opposed to smashing racial barriers. Claudine offers a look at where that career would have started.
Claudine will be screened at the IU Cinema on February 6, kicking off the series Love! I’m in Love! Classic Black Cinema of the 1970s. A public pre-screening talk at 6:15 pm by Philana Payton, PhD candidate, University of Southern California, will precede the film screening.
Ronda L. Sewald is the archivist for the Black Film Center/Archive at Indiana University Bloomington and also holds a Master of Library Science and Ph.D. in Ethnomusicology from IU. Her research on historic disputes over the regulation of music and amplified sound have appeared in American Quarterly and Anthropology News.